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Nadal is a clay bludgeon

The three-time defending champion has never lost at the French Open. Only rain, it seems, can interrupt his reign.

May 28, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

PARIS -- The dogged and doggone rain Tuesday further postponed just about everything, including one of sports' most profound runs of dominance.

Three-time defending champion Rafael Nadal didn't take the court in his lime-green get-up until 7:30 p.m. on the third day of the French Open, but then the rain came again and the match was stopped. Play will resume today, although more rain is forecast.

The wait, however, left ample time for studying his 21-0 lifetime record at Roland Garros.

Since he took the so-dubbed "bull ring" of Court No. 1 on May 23, 2005, when he was almost 19, and beat Germany's Lars Burgsmuller by 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-1, Nadal has wreaked control so thorough that the only sport left might entail counting his lost sets.

He lost three sets here in 2005, three sets in 2006 and one in 2007, but the most striking statistic might be the number of times he has been forced to five rugged, red-clay, French Open sets.

It's zero.

Not one soul among 17 has taken him that far.

He has beaten reigning No. 1 Roger Federer three times (all four-setters, quite the achievement for Federer), current No. 3 Novak Djokovic twice and the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion Lleyton Hewitt twice. He has beaten, among others, three Frenchmen, three Spaniards, two Argentines, one American (Kevin Kim).

As the rest of the game tries to solve him here, he clearly stands as one of sports' leading bastions of try.

"He's playing every point like it's a match point," Djokovic said.

"The biggest thing I see with him is how every ball he hits is like the last ball, you know," said Wayne Odesnik, the South Floridian who won his first-round match Monday.

"I try my best in Monte Carlo," Nadal said. "I try my best in Barcelona. I try my best in Toronto and Hamburg. . . . I try my best on every point, and after, we will see, no?"

That kind of unique inner furnace doesn't lend itself to slip-ups, a thought that occurred as Nadal took the court Tuesday evening hunting 22-0 opposite the Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci.

Nadal won the first game, and in the second sent murmurs through the audience on Court Philippe Chatrier, the main stadium court, by improbably chasing down an excellent Bellucci shot, digging it out in the corner with a flicked forehand and sending it searing so low down the line that Bellucci hit basically a ground ball into the net.

It summarized opponents' futility since 2005, that even when you've hit a winner, you haven't hit a winner.

Back when he stood 0-0 at Roland Garros in May 2005, he had missed the 2003 and 2004 events with injuries, the latter a broken left foot that gave a walkover to Irakli Labadze in Portugal in April. He had bolted to the No. 5 ranking in the world, becoming the youngest top-five player since Michael Chang in 1989.

With a lime-green shirt and musculature that would become much-discussed, he blasted through Burgsmuller and Xavier Malisse and Richard Gasquet, with Gasquet saying, "He doesn't make any errors. He doesn't give you any points. Some players do, but he doesn't."

By now, the assessments report a dominance far more comprehensive.

"He's very superior on this surface," Djokovic said. "His main advantage here is his physical strength and his power and his ability to get all the balls back. You know, I have won three times against him, all three times on the hard courts. . . . But on clay it's quite different. You have to change a little bit and just try to stay with him all the time, because besides his physical strength, mentally he's very, very strong."

Worse yet, he tries -- in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and Hamburg and Toronto and Paris.

He did so Tuesday night at the outset of his fourth French Open and those three titles, and he tried until it got to 1-1, when the rain came again. At that point, the 76th-ranked Bellucci at least could go out in the rainy Paris night and crack that he fought Nadal, at Roland Garros, to a standstill.

Given the standard set the past three springs, it might even qualify as a feat.


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French Open

A look at Day 3 of the French Open and a look ahead to today's competition (world rankings in parentheses):


* Svetlana Kuznetsova (4) -- Justine Henin's sentimental pick to win this French Open, Kuznetsova hurried before rainfall to beat 71st-ranked Aiko Nakamura, 6-2, 6-3.

* Nikolay Davydenko (4) -- Despite the dour weather, he tore through Thomas Johansson, whom tennis fans might remember as the 2002 Australian Open champion, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

* Stanislas Wawrinka (10) -- A hip pick to move deep into this tournament, the rising 23-year-old Swiss beat 36th-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

* Amelie Mauresmo (29) -- It was a match that straddled two rainy days and featured Mauresmo's customary array of gorgeous shots and shocking errors. She finally prevailed near nightfall over Ukraine's 81st-ranked Olga Savchuk, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1.


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